Staying calm in the face of a screaming or irrational child having a tantrum is no easy task. If you have experienced the full wrath of a toddler meltdown, then you know only too well how hard it is to keep your own feelings in check.
It’s very difficult to stop yourself from shouting or having a similarly epic meltdown as your children rile you to your very core. You can feel yourself getting frustrated or even angry, and know that it’s only a matter of time before you lose your cool.
In that situation, it is more important than most that you stay calm. Your child is having the meltdown because they’re in need — and they need you. The saying that goes: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways” – that applies NOW.
Getting into a screaming match certainly isn’t going to help the situation – for you or your child. It’s going to push you apart, not bring you closer.
So what can you do when you’re at your wits end? How can you crawl back to your happy place and help your child through the storm?
When you are having ‘one of those days’ and can feel yourself being pushed to your edge and limits of coping, try the following tips to help you stay calm — even when your child has just deliberately, and aggressively, blown a snot bubble at you:
#1: Remember, This Isn’t About You
Your child isn’t acting out because she wants to hurt you. She’s acting out because something is going on for her right now, and she's doing her best to express it.
Depending on the age of your child, there could be any manner of stresses contributing to this behaviour. It could be exam stress getting your teenager down, exhaustion after a long day at school for your younger child, or your toddler’s simple need to reconnect with you. Young children find it especially difficult to understand and defuse intense “storms” going on in their developing brains.
Whatever it is, this is your child’s way of letting you know (sometimes, it can be untactful or be even plain rude) that she isn’t coping very well, and she needs your help. Take your own needs out of the equation for a moment (yes, easier said than done when your child has just said something hurtful) and focus on what your child really needs in this moment.
#2: Give Yourself A Timeout
If you can feel yourself getting worked up, it’s time to remove yourself from the situation. Take a step back and give yourself the space and time to calm down.
This could mean asking your partner to step in and take over for a moment while you give yourself a timeout to think about how best to handle the situation. Or, it could simply be taking a few steps away from your child (and the associated spit zone). A timeout, before you crack, could be what helps you stay calm and keep the situation in check without a major blowout.
Not only that, you're modelling a positive, healthy way to deal with anger. Children may not listen to everything you say, but you can be sure that they are watching every single thing you do. They're working out what it means to be an adult and how they should behave. Therefore, they will become just like the people they spend most of their time around, which is why it is important for children to have healthy role models, right into the teenage years and beyond. Ever caught yourself sounding like your mother or father? Hehe!
#3: Take Deep Breaths
This may sound cliché, but that’s because it’s true. When we get triggered into fight or flight mode, we stop breathing regularly and start to breathe less deeply, as the sensation of anger rises high up in our chest.
Taking some deep breaths will help to relieve your stress and allow your body to calm down enough for you to focus and think before you potentially lose it. When we're back in our centre (or at least closer to it), we are able to hear our rational mind and parent more effectively. Decisions and words that have come from an emotional, angry space are never good ones.
#4: Love Your Child Unconditionally
This one is pretty easy, because as a parent, you are hardwired to love your kids no matter what.
However, in moments of being pushed and tested, the unconditional love that is usually on tap suddenly isn’t so easy to access. To feel safe and secure, your child needs to know that she is loved all of the time, no matter what. Even when she’s acting like she’s possessed.
Be careful with your words and actions when your kids are winding you up, and try to make sure you are always sending out a message of unconditional love. You can do this by speaking to and addressing the behaviour specifically. Don’t make it personal. Attack the problem, not the person, always — even with adults. Try to think of yourself as a troubleshooter – what is the real problem and how can we fix this to prevent it from happening again?
#5: Focus On Something Lovely
Your child can be an angel one minute and the devil the next — without you even seeing it coming.
It’s important that you don’t forget the angelic moments, even when your child is spinning out of control. When someone is shouting or being aggressive towards you, it’s easy to fall into battle with them as you fire into defence mode.
But, remember, this isn't a real attack and this is one confused little person — your little person — standing right before you. You are the parent in this situation and that means it isn’t an equal fight.
Focus not on the red-faced, hateful child in front of you, but the beautiful and sweet child who said good morning to you this morning. What can you do to help?
#6: Make It About You
Think back to a time when you lashed out because you needed help or you were frustrated. Does this help you relate to how your child is feeling now and how she is behaving?
It makes a real difference if you’re able to relate to and empathise with the anger and fear inside her. After all, anger is really fear underneath the protective layer being put up. She needs your help!
While she might not be going about it in the most pleasant way, you’ve been there. So help her. If you imagine yourself in her shoes and remember how you felt in that situation, you may find it easier to provide the help and support she needs.
Imagine a little four year old you (or however old your little one is). How would you like your mother or father to talk to you? Would you like a warm hug and understanding? Or to be yelled at for causing trouble when you just don't know why you're feeling like you do?
#7: See It Through Her Eyes
It is pretty scary when your child is angry, aggressive and hateful towards you.
But imagine how much worse it is for her when you’re the angry one. If you go in, guns blazing, screaming and shouting, imagine how that might make her feel. You already have the power in this relationship; you are bigger, stronger and more independent. However scary it might be for you to see your child so angry, it will be much worse for her if you react in the same way. It can even build resent in children when parents use their power against them.
Children may be small, but they thrive on respect and understanding, just like you. Otherwise the world can seem an unfair place, because those bigger and more powerful than you seem to have the upper hand. Do you know grown ups who still believe this?
#8: Remember, This Is Your Job
The responsibility here does not lie with your child. As the parent, it is your job to turn this situation around. It’s not an easy job, far from it, but it’s your job nonetheless.
So, work out how to help your child and defuse this situation calmly and effectively. If you get angry, you’re not helping your child to deal with whatever it is she has going on.
#9: Model What You Want To See
Kids learn way more by observing than they do from listening, and that means that your actions speak far louder than your words when it comes to parenting. You’re not going to convince your child that shouting isn’t the answer by screaming at them to stop shouting. Be calm, communicative and in control, even when your child isn’t. This will help your child learn to manage her emotions effectively – even the unpleasant ones.
Staying Calm Next Time
Using the tips above can help you to reinstate calm no matter how magnificent the meltdown. That is an invaluable skill to have in the moment. What is even more important, however, is having the skill to rein in these dramas before they unfurl. With close attention, careful thought and a calm approach, you might just be able to prevent future meltdowns from getting quite so epic. Always remember that outbursts are like waves, ride them and soon they're over. It can feel like forever in the heat of the moment, but soon, it'll be old news.
Here are some tips to help you stay calm:
#1: Look For The Pattern
Children fly off the handle because they feel they have lost control and need your help in regaining that sense of security. This behaviour may follow a pattern. For example, your child may always act out after sleeping over at grandmas, a long day at preschool or in the run up to Christmas. Try to pinpoint what the problem is.
Could tiredness, an overload of processed foods — especially grains and sugar — or way too much hype or screen time be to blame? Once you know what causes the meltdowns, you can try to prevent future ones. For example, by putting grandma on a sweets ban, asking preschool to allow for naptime, or laying off the Christmas build up a bit.
#2: Meet Her Needs
Children need to be fed, watered, warm, rested and connected. Is your child consistently getting her needs met? A meltdown can be caused by something as simple as hunger or tiredness. Make sure these needs are always met. You may find that the number of meltdowns you deal with reduce.
Making sure you invest time in connecting with your children, no matter what their age, is meeting their greatest need of all – getting enough of you.
#3: Meet Your Needs
It’s no surprise that when your needs are neglected, you are less able to meet the needs of your children. Think about your average day. It’s probably a juggling act with a lot of different balls in the air. By the end of the day, you may find yourself feeling drained, exhausted and ready for bed (read: wine).
If you feel like this, then you may also find that you have a short temper, little patience, and feel irritable. In order to be the best parent you can be, you need to make sure your own needs are met. You need rest, relaxation and time for yourself. It’s not easy when you have so many other demands, but carve out a chunk of time each week that you can spend on you. You won’t regret it.
Some things are worth being firm about and you should absolutely be telling your toddler that she needs to hold your hand near busy roads. That is a matter of safety. But does it really matter if her clothes don’t match and her hair hasn’t been brushed? Is it worth getting into a huge fight over? Probably not.
Before you get into one of those situations, ask yourself whether it really matters. If not, let your child have some control over the situation. When kids don’t have enough agency — the capacity to choose and make choices — they tend to find a way to seek it. Often this is by acting out.
#5: Set Limits Early
As a parent, it’s your job to set limits. That’s how you keep your children safe and meet their needs. You should set limits in a consistent, gentle and respectful way. And that means setting them early. As soon as you see an undesirable behaviour begin, it’s time to set a boundary.
Waiting until you’re seeing red isn’t going to help. In fact, it’s going to make things much worse. Don’t be afraid of saying ‘no’ to your children. Just make sure you do it gently and respectfully. You may need to help them stop the behaviour too, either by redirecting them towards another activity that they enjoy, or if necessary, gently removing them from the situation.